My Copper Road editor asked me to send in a worldbuilding bible along with the manuscript.
To me, “bibles” were for TV writing rooms and shared universe series or anthologies; basically places where the writing is collective and certain conventions have to be held to. Characters who are brother and sister in Season One shouldn’t be married in Season Three (unless that is part of the world-building). A character whose cat phobia played a critical role in the plot in Season One probably should not adopt six cats later, unless this is meant to show some character change. I didn’t think bibles applied to independent works.
My editor pointed out that a bible helps the copyeditor. An alternate world fantasy often has different names, place-names and nonstandard English words. You’re helping the copyeditor focus on specific errors instead of having to learn the vocabulary as they read. Every bit of information you can give the copyeditor upfront helps them hone their focus on the missing words or transpositions, or grammar and punctuation questions, which is what you want them finding.
Here’s what I included in my bible:
I started this list for myself, both to help me remember the names and also to keep the spelling straight. This story has a lot of nonstandard names, and some that are common, but not from the English tradition. I used the document throughout the writing of the book, especially to help me remember the first name of a minor character, for example, when I needed it.
Some place names in the book sound English. Several do not. I put them all on the list. Here’s why. I have a town in the book called White Bluffs. White Bluffs is essential to the story. The name’s descriptive. I have a vivid picture of White Bluffs in my head. That didn’t stop me from typing it as “White Plains” at least twice in “Aluminum Leaves,” (which my editor caught, thank you) and at least that often in Copper Road (which I caught myself). Because a couple of place names evolved over the writing of the book, it’s possible that I still have multiple spellings in the book. The bible contains the final spelling.
I included non-English words, including a few words that English appropriated, that will be familiar to everyone. Because of the mix of words, I put those on the list to be on the safe side. I included words like “coin” and “pledge” which have specific meanings in the book’s alternate world.
I was surprised at how many new words there were.
Which brings me to a pro tip: Start your bible as you start your first draft and add things as you go. This shifts a workload away from the back end of the process, when you would rather be finetuning your prose and punching up the rhythm of your paragraphs.
If Arabella and Hilario are siblings but she calls Hilario “cousin” on page 256, a bible will help the copyeditor catch that. You could probably go even further and designate birth order for siblings. I know I’ve read at least two works, one of them famous, where two siblings alternate calling each other “little brother,” or “big brother,” and I really don’t know which is which.
Modes of Address:
My alternate world uses hierarchical modes of address largely based on a person’s wealth. Some are gendered, some not. Some people are allowed titles, like “Doctor,” or “Professor.” They’re all on the list.
I open one chapter with a character who is bored. To show that, I start each sentence in the paragraph with the word “She.” She walks around. She sits back down. She looks out the window. She eats a snack. She walks around some more. The effect is to recreate her sense of monotony on the page.
The editor suggested I note this chapter and paragraph in the bible and put STET (which means “let it stand”) next to it, letting the copyeditors know that this repetition is intentional. Based on that suggestion, I added a couple other places where I invert common sentence structure or use repetition for storytelling purposes.
- A worldbuilding bible helps the copyeditors. Anything that helps the copyeditors help you.
- Starting the bible when you start your draft makes it easier to add things as you go and saves you that labor at the end of the process.
- This is for the in-house staff. This is not a part of the book. More information rather than less is helpful.
- It’s a good tool for your own memory, or your own creative process.
Good luck with your worlds, and their bibles!